The US-Turkish bilateral relationship is entering a new period of cooperation. While part of the positive mood characterizing the relationship is attributable to the US-Turkish coordinated action in the context of the Arab Spring, the recent changes in Turkey’s threat perceptions have also played a role. Overall, although the rejuvenation of the partnership might be welcome news, the manner in which it has come about reflects an underlying weakness in US-Turkish ties, i.e., it is still characterized by a security-dominant discourse.
After many years of confrontation during the Bush Presidency, epitomized by Turkey’s resistance to US plans prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Turkish leaders welcomed the election of President Barack Obama (EDM, November 7, 2008). Although Obama’s call for a fresh approach to US foreign policy in the Middle East excited the Turks, both parties were often involved in disagreements and clashed over many issues. Turkey’s deteriorating relationship with Israel caused discomfort on the part of US policy makers, and the US policy of pursuing punitive measures against the Iranian nuclear program angered the Turkish government. The resulting frictions were not limited to the Middle East, as Turkey and the United States diverged on other issues, such as Turkey’s stalled rapprochement with Armenia or Turkey’s posturing in NATO.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, both parties increasingly coordinate their policies. Ankara and Washington have given up their initial silence and increasingly supported the popular uprisings in the region. On Egypt, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan maintained close dialogue with Obama, as he adopted a pro-democracy position and called for the end of Mubarak’s rule. Despite Erdogan’s initial criticism of NATO’s military intervention in Libya, Turkey later joined the coalition and became an ardent supporter of the opposition that eventually toppled Gaddafi. On Syria, Turkey, in line with the Western world, has advocated regime change, moving in the direction of imposing sanctions on the Baath regime (EDM, July 20, August 10).
The changing threat perceptions have also drawn the two countries together. For the US, the planned withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan make Turkey an indispensable partner in the region. As the entire region experiences a period of turmoil, with its constructive policies toward these war-torn countries, Ankara emerges as an element of stability that can help fill the security vacuum and safeguard some US interests. Turkey’s constructive attitude in Iraq has been known for some time, as it had helped contain the deepening of civil conflict and extended assistance to facilitate US withdrawal from the country. In the context of Afghanistan, Turkey has also actively worked to mobilize the regional and international actors for the reconstruction of this country, a goal the United States deeply appreciates. In this context, Turkey hosted the latest round of the trilateral summit in Istanbul in the first week of November, which brought together the Afghan and Pakistani presidents under the Turkish President’s watch (Anadolu Ajansi, November 3).
For Turkey, the primary motivation for reinvigorating the relationship is its immediate security concerns, which have been heightened in recent months. In response to the acceleration of the PKK’s terrorist campaign, Turkey’s military shortcomings in counter-terrorism increasingly underscore its ongoing dependence on the US for its defense procurement needs. Moreover, as the Middle East has been more volatile – characterized by a heightened risk environment – Turkey obviously needs a more solid anchor. These new conditions apparently resulted in Ankara reevaluating its ties with Washington, and abandoning its confrontational rhetoric, which resulted in a series of recent decisions.
Indeed, Turkey-US security cooperation has remarkably increased recently. The most visible indication for this policy shift came with Ankara’s decision to host the NATO early warning radars on its soil (EDM, September 20). Later, the United States committed to Turkey’s fight against the PKK, by agreeing to the basing of US unmanned Predator drones at Incirlik base to supply Turkey with actionable intelligence. Moreover, an interagency delegation led by US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Alexander Vershbow, to discuss how to improve the joint struggle against the PKK was another major development (Anadolu Ajansi, October 28).
Furthermore, Washington finally decided to sell three Super Cobra helicopters to Turkey, which Turkey had requested for some time in order to use against the PKK (www.ntvmsnbc.com, October 30). The fact that the sale is unlikely to encounter opposition from the Senate, despite many lawmakers’ discomfort with Turkey’s harsh policy on Israel, has underscored how largely the administration’s views on Turkey is shared in the US policy community.
It was against this background that Turkey’s Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz, while attending the American-Turkish Council’s annual conference in Washington, argued that Turkey and the US are rediscovering each other and are going through a unique period (Anadolu Ajansi, November 2).
Despite this positive mood, however, the reinvigoration of the US-Turkish partnership in many ways resembles the dynamics of bilateral relations in the Cold War and early post-Cold War era, when security-related considerations formed the basis of the alliance. Various efforts to bolster the volume of economic ties and foster closer societal dialogue still continue but the prevalence of security issues is undeniable. It remains to be seen how sustainable this new cooperative phase is, especially if one factors in the possible change of administration following the US presidential elections. Even the current administration continues to accentuate the need for Turkey to mend ties with Israel, which currently remains uncertain and an element of instability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Nor is it clear if the efforts to pass a resolution in the US Congress on the genocide allegations might spoil the relations again, as the centennial of the 1915 events is approaching. But, at any rate, currently the United States acknowledges Turkey’s quest for a more autonomous foreign policy course in the Middle East, which it views as beneficial to US interests. Turkey, for its part, is aware of the US interests in the region and refrains from engaging unduly confrontation, as was the case in the Iranian nuclear issue.